Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student imprisoned by North Korea who remains in a coma since his release this week, was active at the campus Hillel, had been on a Birthright trip to Israel, and cared deeply about the Jewish community.
Warmbier, 22, a Cincinnati native, was traveling on a student tour of North Korea last year when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster.
After international outrage and over a year of imprisonment, North Korea released him this week, saying his health had deteriorated severely. Warmbier’s doctors say he is unresponsive and has suffered extensive brain damage.
Rabbi Jake Rubin, the University of Virginia’s Hillel director, told JTA in an email that it was another overseas trip that sealed Warmbier’s connection to the Jewish community.
A 2014 Birthright mission to Israel, where Warmbier received a Hebrew name during a hike to Masada, left a strong impression on the young man. Following the trip, he became involved with the Jewish community on campus.
Birthright offers free trips to individuals who identify as Jewish, have at least one Jewish birth parent or have completed Jewish conversion. Rubin did not answer a question about Warmbier’s Jewish background.
The rabbi described Warmbier as “a beloved member of our Hillel community.”
“He was a regular at Bagels on Lawn, celebrated Shabbat and holidays at Hillel, and even led a seder for other students that focused on issues of environmentalism and sustainability,” Rubin wrote.
During that seder, Warmbier and another student used the Passover ritual as a way to introduce issues related to climate change.
“What are the ten plagues of climate change? How can washing our hands remind us of the importance of water conservation? Throughout the Seder, we asked participants to reflect on how the story of the Exodus and the Seder traditions relate to environmental challenges,” Lia Cattaneo, who led the seder with Warmbier, wrote in a 2015 blog on the Hillel website.
Rubin recalled the joy that infused Warmbier’s day-to-day life.
“In the simplest interactions Otto always found something of interest and would make you smile,” he wrote. “At every stop on Birthright he would try some kind of new food, strike up a conversation with someone new, or find some unique thing to bargain for. He loved life and it was infectious.”
Beyond Hillel, Warmbier was a leader on the University of Virginia campus, Rubin said. Warmbier served on the student council’s sustainability committee and spoke with a Tel Aviv councilman, Etai Pikas, about environmentalism in Israel.
“The opportunity to hear from the man voted one of Israel’s 100 Most Influential People on his work and passion was truly remarkable,” Warmbier wrote of the meeting in a blog for Hillel published in 2015.
Rubin described Warmbier as a person who “was always full of life, intellectually curious, and cared deeply for his friends and community.”
“He was always interested in learning more about the world and the people around him. He put everyone at ease with his humor and genuine interest for others,” the rabbi added. “Otto was a leader at UVa and we are fortunate that he is a member of our community.”
Warmbier spent almost a year-and-a-half in captivity after being arrested in January 2016. The North accused the University of Virginia student of entering the country under the guise of a tourist and plotting against the nation’s unity with “the tacit connivance of the US government.”
Paraded before the media a month later in Pyongyang, he tearfully apologized for attempting to steal a political banner from a staff-only section of his hotel. The Swedes, who represent US interests in North Korea, managed to visit him in March 2016, a few weeks before he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
What happened next, and how Warmbier ended up in a coma, is still unclear. Warmbier’s family said North Korea insists the coma was the result of botulism and a sleeping pill. But the family has dismissed that explanation. Doctors treating him in the US said they found no evidence of botulism, but did find severe brain damage consistent with losing oxygen to the brain.
Though Warmbier supposedly had been in a coma for more than a year, the US didn’t learn the full extent of his condition until recently.